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TVG dons on its protective gear and tries to look rad playing Tony Hawk: RIDE...
Take a windowless, darkened room filled with whirring Xboxes. Then cram 20 or so men and women into that space and you have the makings of a typical preview event. The result is an unfortunate amount of sweat, embarassing sweat patches and numerous clammy handshakes. Unfortunately, the arrival of peripheral gaming has just made matters worse, to the point where bringing a change of clothes to a games event actually seems like a fairly good idea.
Mercifully then, Activision had secured a well ventilated room for our hands-on with Tony Hawk: RIDE. Bored with the once-successful and now slightly tired formula that has been the basis of the former games, peripheral-happy Activision has taken the obvious step of adding a skateboard controller to the Tony Hawk experience. When we first saw the game back in June, the hefty £100 price tag for the bundle (the game can't be played without the board) seemed a little pricy to say the least. However, as the Rockstar/Guitar Hero series have proven, people are more than willing to hand over that amount of cash for the kind of social gaming experience that they can take out at parties.
Right from the beginning of the day, it was clear to see that this is just what Robomodo and Activision have achieved. Even though there was more than enough boards to go round, players were clustered around screens picking up tips from one another while taking turns jumping on. Once we did get on, the immediate responsiveness of the board was hugely gratifying.
Robomodo has finely calibrated the accelerometers inside the controller so that, at the basic level, any movement made translates directly on to the screen. For instance, putting your back foot on the end of the board makes the on-screen rider crouch in preparation for an Ollie and if you then tilt the nose of the board up into the air, the rider does the same and performs a manual (or a wheelie to the skate-illiterate like me). The effect is seamless while not overly sensitive thanks to the different difficulty modes: casual, confident and hardcore.
On the harder difficulties you can really see how delicate an instrument the board can be. With the sensitivities set to their highest, the hardcore mode responds to the slightest of inputs causing all but the very best skaters to meander around courses haplessly. This gives you complete control of the board and ventures into the realms of turning the game into a sim.
While the basic movement of the rider and board is a one to one translation, the tricks are performed with a series of gestures.
A basic ollie is performed with a quick flick up and down of the nose, which can then be followed up with any number of gestures to pull off over a hundred tricks. Grabs are performed by throwing a hand in the direction of one of the sensors on the four sides of the boards (the sensors work up to waist height so you don't have to over exert yourself), while kickflips are carried out by leaning to either side while in the air. I could list all the variations but the basic effect is that every move has an instinctive approximation that you could probably guess within five minutes of play. This is something that will undoubtedly make this game a huge hit at parties; it's easy enough to not be discouraging but technical enough to keep people coming back for more. Of course, mastering these skills is another story. A quick, misguided go on the hardcore mode was punishing, and the challenge modes require efficient movements in order to chain tricks together effectively.
With this new controller, the gameplay takes on a new shape too. There is now far more co-ordination involved in chaining a series of tricks together, so just like actual skaters, we found ourselves hunting for good sections to link up rather than bumping into them at breakneck speeds as in previous games. The entire pace of the game has also been changed by the new modes: speed, tricks and challenges. The first two simply require the fastest time or the highest score while the last sets single objectives on the course. This makes the whole experience much calmer and allows you to really focus on what you're doing on the board.
That said, Tony Hawk: RIDE hasn't lost any of the gravity-defying moves that made the series such a thrill to play. For the first time you can take Mr Hawk to dedicated half-pipe levels and possibly spend days before you've exhausted every possible move in the game. Similarly, throughout levels there are moments that put the laws of physics in the quiet corner while you soar off jumps that would shatter the legs of mere mortals, keeping even dedicated skaters interested in the game.
The game looks set to be perfect for the living room alongside you're guitar and Wii peripherals. However, it does beg the question: at what point will consumers stop forking out for such expensive gear? Nevertheless, it will be a multiplayer favourite as every single-player stage can be played in a hot seat mode where players take turns to beat each other on the same board, and each stage can also be played online.
The skateboard peripheral is clearly the star of the show here: It's sensitive, accurate and instinctive. However, what we couldn't really tell from our brief time with the game is how the finished product will shape up next to such a novel piece of gear. With such a fun piece of kit to play on, there is always the risk that the actual game is overshadowed by its novelty. This could lead to shallow, short games that don't justify the huge price tag. If Tony Hawk: RIDE can avoid this pitfall then it will definitely bring back the glory days of the series.